They weren't quite dancing in the streets, but it was hard not to be caught up in the spontaneous joy which swept downtown San Diego one evening this summer, when a slightly overweight baseball player strode to the batter's box and smacked an inside pitch clean out of the ground, winning it for the Padres deep into a late-season game. The roar of delight rolled through the city centre, from the stadium's grandstands to packed bars and restaurants in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, where all eyes suddenly turned towards flatscreens and beery crowds celebrated with that most American of salutations: the high five.
It was a cliché, of course. But then so was the huge statue of a sailor kissing a nurse, inspired by that famous photograph from the end of WWII, which we'd strolled past in the harbour earlier that morning. And so was the long, dreamy afternoon we'd just spent in the sunshine of Balboa Park, home to a slew of San Diego's most famous attractions, where we'd ticked off a couple of impressive museums before falling utterly in love, at the nearby course, with Frisbee Golf — a sport which couldn't really exist if someone hadn't previously invented words like awesome and dude.
What, though, is the point of Southern California if you don't buy into its glorious clichés? This corner of the world wears its assets proudly, from the endless beaches to the world-famous sign that splatters Hollywood across the LA skyline. Everyone knows about the film studios, the Walks of Fame, Disneyland, and the beautiful people in open-top cars who will forever drive beneath deep blue skies. To journey down the coast is to experience life as it might be lived inside an Andy Warhol artwork: bright, breezy.
We did, as it happens, admire Mr Warhol's work, some of which was displayed at the local Museum of Contemporary Art the very next day. By that stage we realised that the California of everyone's dreams is alive and kicking in its southernmost city. This was a revelation: for years, San Diego has been considered a nice-but-dull backwater, with year-round sun, great beaches such as Black's Beach, and a world-famous zoo, but not a whole lot else.
Today, all is transformed. San Diego still has warm weather (the temperature never drops below 70°F), miles of golden sands, and the zoo is worth a day of anyone's time. But its vibe couldn't be edgier. It boasts top-flight cultural attractions, including six world-class museums (three devoted to art, one to flight, one to natural history, and one to 'man') in the city's Balboa Park alone, and a well-regarded opera house. Musicals and plays often premiere in local theatres, before transferring to Broadway. The coastal suburb of La Jolla, known as the local Beverly Hills, has top-notch shopping and endlessly fascinating art galleries.